The lessons to be drawn from one guilty plea

December 17, 2005|By GREGORY KANE

Oh, where do we begin in the lessons to be learned from John Edward Kennedy Jr.'s guilty plea?

This week, Kennedy pleaded guilty to the murder of William A. Bassett, who was a science teacher and faculty dean at St. Paul's School. The incident happened in February at the Towson Town Center. Kennedy was the one who used a 20-gauge shotgun to kill Bassett. Kennedy's crime partner, Javon Clark, drove the getaway vehicle.

My guess is Kennedy, 19, entered his plea to escape the death penalty. He'll get life without parole. Clark was found guilty of attempted armed robbery but acquitted of Bassett's murder after some jurors decided they couldn't stand the thought of the 18-year-old spending the rest of his life behind bars. And so we get to our first lesson:

Aren't jurors such as the ones in Clark's trial supposed to be ferreted out during the voir dire process?

Whenever I go to jury duty, judges ask which potential jurors have relatives who are police officers, which ones have relatives who are in prison, which ones have had brushes with the law and which ones have been the victims of crimes. It looks as if judges will have to add "are you capable of following simple instructions regarding the law?" to that list.

In some instances, judges might ask potential jurors how they feel about the death penalty, which brings us to our next lesson:

Marylanders should keep the death penalty. And we should use it often.

Kennedy's quick plea came on the heels of Wesley Eugene Baker's execution. Kennedy not only committed felony murder, but he committed it in Baltimore County, where prosecutors are not shy about seeking the death penalty. My guess is that, in light of Baker's execution, he probably figured that his time to be strapped on the lethal-injection table was surely a-comin'.

That's a deterrent effect of capital punishment that death penalty opponents would never acknowledge: that there are some felony murderers who will quickly cut a deal for a life-without-possibility-of-parole sentence to escape a date with the executioner. Without the death penalty, Kennedy and others might try to punk the system by going to trial and taking their chances of being acquitted. They'd probably hope that they'd wind up with some of the same kind of sappy jurors Clark got.

If it takes the occasional execution of a Wesley Baker or a Steven Oken (he got his last year) to persuade killers to take such deals, then so be it. I take no joy in the fact that Baker and Oken were put to death. But their executions didn't leave me prostrate with grief either.

What darn near does leave me prostrate with grief is the account of Kennedy's lawyer about the motive for robbing Bassett. According to Sun reporter Jennifer McMenamin's account, the lawyer said Kennedy changed after he "resumed friendships with three young men he had grown up with. Influenced by rap music, MTV and portrayals of the gangster life ... the young men decided to purchase a shotgun and `try to do robberies.'"

Years ago, I would have dismissed such an account as a ridiculous variation on "the-devil-made-me-do-it" excuse. I would have said that plenty of young black men listen to rap music and manage to neither rob nor murder anyone.

Well, that was then. This is now.

Looking at the cover of the December issue of The Source magazine, I'm convinced that Kennedy's lawyer, public defender F. Spencer Gordon, might have a point. Editors of The Source call it a magazine of "hip-hop music, culture & politics." Those politics skew way to the left, judging from the content. The magazine's editors cling to the "we-are-victims-hear-us-whine" philosophy that has sunk its clutches deeply into way too many black Americans.

The December issue is devoted to "Hip-Hop Behind Bars 2." The cover features photos of rappers L'il Kim, in prison for perjury and conspiracy; C-Miller, in prison for second-degree murder; Cassidy, who's awaiting trial on first-degree murder charges; and Shyne, who's serving 10 years for assault and gun possession.

One headline on the cover features the now almost-obligatory question when it comes to the world of hip-hop: "Snitching: Is Silence Golden?" Another relates the purpose of the December issue.

"An In-Depth Look At America's Criminal Justice System. Are We The Targets?"

Now is the proper time to pose a question to the editors of The Source. It's the one made famous by the character Sweetback in the movie Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song.

"Where you get that `we' stuff?"

Cops target criminals. Rappers who constantly rap about what great thugs, "gangstas" and "hustlas" they are will indeed get some attention from law enforcement agencies, and rightly so.

But the thousands and thousands of blacks in the hip-hop generation who are in colleges or universities aren't "targets." Nor are the ones who have graduated college and become gainfully employed. And the editors of The Source should know that such hip-hoppers are the rule, not the exception.

Would John Edward Kennedy Jr. have gotten that message if editors at The Source had dedicated an issue to "Hip-Hop In College"?

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